Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Standardized Absurdity: A Preview of Common Core Testing, Part 1

Let’s put the Common Core to the test. Specifically, let’s look at a pilot standardized examination created by Smarter Balanced, one of the two testing consortia formed to create exams aligned to the Common Core, the educational regimen that prevails in forty-five states in the nation. We shall leave aside the questions of why everyone has been so quiet about what these tests will look like and whether states outsourcing testing to unaccountable agencies that will in turn dictate the curricula of the schools constitutes a gross violation of the principle of local control. For now we shall simply try to figure out whether these purportedly “rigorous” exams will produce the “college and career readiness” for a “twenty-first-century global economy” that Common Core proponents have so often promised and proclaimed, or whether the Common Core is both utterly superficial and politically biased.

What follows is taken from an eleventh-grade English Language Arts exam. That is the class that used to be called simply “English” or “literature.” To shed a little light on what is really transpiring in such a test, we shall add a few of our own questions along the way.

The readings for the exam consist in two-three-page selections followed by several questions. Over the course of two articles, we shall look at excerpts from the first three sections of the exam:

    The Science of Meditation

    Meditation has been practiced for thousands of years by people from a wide variety of cultures. Though traditionally a spiritual practice, meditation has more recently been identified by medical professionals as a uniquely effective way to improve mental and physical health. . . .

    . . . Here is one of the most commonly taught ways to meditate: start by sitting on the floor or in a chair in a comfortable and relaxed position. Once you are comfortable, concentrate your awareness on your breathing. . . . As you focus on your breathing, notice how your mind tends to wander to other things. . . . When you notice your attention wandering, simply acknowledge this new thought, watch it go by, and then return your awareness to your breathing. Don’t try to fight against these wandering thoughts . . .

    People who meditate regularly report numerous benefits. They feel calmer and more relaxed, and more prepared and clear-headed when responding to the challenges and frustrations of everyday life. These reported benefits have been supported by scientific research on meditation . . .

Sample question from the actual exam:

    “How does meditation work, and what does science have to say about its effects on practitioners?” [a quotation from the selection]

    What is the meaning of practitioners in the text?

    a) a person engaged in the practice of a profession such as law or medicine

    b) a person who does something repeatedly in order to improve

    c) a person authorized to apply healing techniques to others

    d) a person who engages in something specified

Common-sense questions:

    Before the twenty-first-century global economy, most people handled “stress” by:

    a) praying to God

    b) drinking lots of whiskey

    c) having intimate and prolonged conversations with their breathing

    d) usually a, too often b, and never c, which could have gotten one thrown into bedlam.

    The person who regularly practices the “science of meditation” is most likely:

    a) a bum

    b) a yogi

    c) a hippie

    d) a total flake

    e) all of the above

Reading selection number two:

    Sustainable Fashion

    “Sustainability” is a popular buzzword these days, but what exactly does it mean? According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “sustainability creates and maintains the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony . . . [and] that permit fulfilling the social, economic and other requirements of present and future generations.” As the idea of living a sustainable lifestyle has become more widespread in recent years, consumers have begun to demand that the products they buy are produced in sustainable ways. It’s a trend that has made a new type of clothing, dubbed “eco-fashion,” very fashionable indeed.

    Why has clothing become such a concern for those who want to live more sustainably? Consider that Americans threw away an estimated 13.1 million pounds of clothing and textiles in 2010, or 5.3% of solid wastes that made it into U. S. landfills that year (according to the EPA). . . .

    But the environmental impact of clothing involves more than just where our used clothes end up. To calculate the true impact of, say, a cotton T-shirt, we must go back to the beginning: to the farm where the cotton was grown. Cotton is a very water-intensive crop that is typically grown with heavy application of insecticides . . . Cotton that is grown in the U. S. is often shipped off to other countries . . . where it is processed with chemicals and dyes . . . The completed product is then shipped back to America . . . While all that shipping uses up a lot of energy, shipping actually accounts for less than half of the energy that will eventually be used on that T-shirt over its lifetime. According to the Audubon Society, about 60% of the energy cost of a T-shirt comes from washing and drying it—and washing adds a water cost as well.

    Given this environmental impact, it’s easy to see why many consumers are bypassing cotton T-shirts for clothing that is produced in more sustainable ways. . . .

    Sustainability, however, does not just mean being good to the environment; it also means being fair to fellow human beings. Etc.

Sample question from the exam:

    “The clothing industry has not been operating in an ecologically sustainable way.”

    Click on all the details that support this conclusion.

    a) Growing cotton uses a lot of water.

    b) Cotton growers use a lot of insecticides.

    c) Etc. through f).

Common-sense questions:

    The adverb sustainably found in paragraph 2 would most likely be found in which resource:

    a) Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language

    b) The Oxford English Dictionary

    c) The American Heritage Dictionary

    d) The Tree-Hugger’s Guide to the Planet

    Though not stated explicitly in the passage, who is least likely to be the friend of the American farmer?

    a) A vendor at a rock concert

    b) A fashion designer indifferent to Eco-fashion

    c) An employee of the Environmental Protection Agency

    d) Your mother who wastes energy washing your T-shirts

    The term that best describes the activities outlined in paragraph 3 is:

    a) The international T-shirt shuffle

    b) Eco-homicide

    c) Commerce and free exchange

    d) Economic imperialism

For further “rigorous” reading selections that lead to “college and career readiness” in a “twenty-first-century global economy”—and a few answers to our questions about standardized testing under the Common Core—we shall continue this exam tomorrow.


The present British final High School exams  'should be axed in favour of new baccalaureate'

A-levels should be scrapped in favour of a European-style baccalaureate because schools are failing to prepare teenagers for university and the workplace, a major report has warned.

Traditional “gold standard” qualifications should be phased out over six to eight years to give pupils a grounding in a wider range of subjects and job skills, according to a powerful lobby of academics and business leaders.

The expert group insisted that A-levels were “too narrow”, failed to properly reward pupils with flair and promoted a system of “learning to the test”.

It was claimed that too many sixth-formers left school with poor levels of writing, basic numeracy, critical thinking, problem-solving, time management and an inability to work independently.

The report recommended shifting towards a baccalaureate-style qualification in which pupils study around six subjects rather than specialising in just three.

New courses should also include a compulsory extended project and cover the assessment of “softer” skills such as team working and interpersonal skills, it said.

The conclusions were made as part of a six-month inquiry led by Sir Roy Anderson, former rector of Imperial College London.

The 14-strong advisory group also included Sir Michael Rake, chairman of BT and president of the Confederation of British Industry, and Sir David Bell, the Reading University vice-chancellor and former permanent secretary at the Department for Education.

Any move to a baccalaureate will be resisted by the Government which has already rewritten the national curriculum and unveiled a significant overhaul of A-levels.

It also comes a decade after similar plans were considered and rejected by the then Labour government.

But Sir Roy said there was a concern that the “English classroom and what’s taught in it has changed little in the last 60 years”.

“While the past has much to teach us, that shouldn’t be at the expense of keeping a keen eye on the future,” he said.

Sir Michael said the country needed to “move on from our narrow out-dated focus with A-levels and to improve on the other competencies necessary for success, including the fundamental need to improve the basic skills of literacy and numeracy, which are at an unacceptably low level”.

A-levels – first introduced in the early 50s and taken by 300,000 pupils each year – involve teenagers specialising in three or four subjects between the age of 16 and 18.

But the latest report, Making Education Work, recommended moving towards a baccalaureate system, which is already adopted in parts of Europe and the Far East.

The study – commissioned by the publishers Pearson – suggested it should cover English, maths, languages, science and technology as well as other skills such as teamwork and a compulsory extended project.

In a further recommendation, the study called for the creation of an independent body made up of teachers, employers, universities and political parties to establish a "long-term political consensus" over education.

A spokesman for the Department for Education said: “Our new curriculum was developed following extensive consultation with a wide range of experts and will give children the essential knowledge they need.

“Alongside wider reform to GCSEs, A levels and vocational qualifications this will mean young people leave school with the skills and qualifications they need to secure a job, apprenticeship or university place.”


Australian school's $500 lightbulb bill

Doomadgee is an Aboriginal community

Doomadgee State School, on the Gulf of Carpentaria, was billed $200 for labour alone after the teacher was told workplace health and safety regulations prevented any staff member from buying and replacing the bulb themselves, The Australian understands.

Queensland Education Minister John-Paul Langbroek yesterday ordered an internal investigation into the bill, saying over-the-top red tape was adding to the spiralling financial costs of delivering services in remote areas of Queensland. The probe was launched after the internal document was leaked, according to sources, in a bid to expose waste and duplication of state and commonwealth services in some of the state's remote communities.
Mr Langbroek said Queensland's teachers and principals were beset with "crazy rules" that included a requirement that a school hire an outside contractor to retrieve a ball in the playground if it became lodged (for instance, in a tree branch) at a level of 1.8m or higher. "This is the sort of red tape that needs to end," he said. "It's crazy."There is no excuse for a $480 bill to put in a fridge lightbulb. The teacher is not going to get electrocuted putting it in."

I have already asked for a review on the type of regulation where a school has to pay someone to get a ball from a branch or a gutter that might be only 1.8m high. There has to be a balance.

The Newman government has already moved to find cost savings in the Education Department, opening up tenders for school maintenance contracts to the private sector. Mr Langbroek said it was difficult to find private contractors who could supply services in some of Queensland's more remote communities. Doomadgee State School, which has 303 students, is among the most expensive in the state, with commonwealth figures showing it cost taxpayers $15,879 for each student per year, compared with the state average of $9000.

The school - which offers prep to Year 10 in the indigenous community of 1500 people - is among the state's poorest performers with the lowest attendance rate in Queensland of just 54 per cent.

Mr Langbroek, along with Indigenous Affairs Minister Glen Elmes and Local Government Minister David Crisafulli, went to Doomadgee last week in a bid to lift the attendance rates, after a visit late last year by Premier Campbell Newman."We are trying to lift the attendance rates, trying to get community support to get these kids to school," Mr Langbroek said."We talked to the community, the council - it is very challenging."


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